Word 2004: Remaining flaws in style definition process

Posted by Pierre Igot in: Macintosh
June 19th, 2004 • 12:52 am

In Word 2004, Microsoft has tried to improve the user experience when it comes to creating new styles and editing and using existing styles. In typical Microsoft fashion, however, they have done little more than to add a coat of paint to the existing interface, and the end result doesn’t bring much real improvement in terms of usability.

The “New Style” dialog box, for example, now includes a few formatting options that you can use without having to go through the small “Format” menu at the bottom of the dialog box to access other dialog boxes. But these options are very limited, and, out of so many possible options for styles, the ones that were selected to be included in this dialog box are such a small subset that it’s hardly useful.

In addition, the options consist of one row of character formatting options (bold, italics, etc.) and one row of paragraph formatting options (alignment, line spacing, etc.). This means that, if the style you want to define is a character style, the second row becomes disabled and is entirely useless, a complete waste of space.

In addition, the regular “Style” dialog box now has two preview areas in Word 2004, i.e. a “Paragraph preview” similar to the one in Word X and a “Character preview” that finally shows character formatting options on a small sample of text that’s big enough to actually provide any useful feedback. But the “New Style” dialog box only has one preview area, which is a paragraph preview area. So you can select character formatting options for a style in this “New Style” dialog, but you cannot preview them. Why the double preview concept wasn’t extended to this dialog box as well, I don’t really know. It might have been due to space considerations — but then why the waste of space when defining a character style?

Basically Microsoft just doesn’t get the art of creating a fluid, flexible, useful user interface. Mac OS X provides all kinds of new interface tools (drawers, panes, etc.) that could have been used here. Instead, Microsoft create a rigid dialog box with a selection of buttons that are only useful in some situations. And the rest of the formatting options still have to be accessed through that annoying “Format” pop-up menu at the bottom of the dialog box, opening additional dialog boxes on top of the “New Style” one, exactly like in Word X and previous versions.

Finally, here is another example illustrating how Microsoft doesn’t get the art of designing a user interface. In the “New Style” dialog box, when you define a new paragraph style, you can use the “Format” menu to access the “Paragraph” dialog box, which opens on top of the “New Style” dialog box. There, you can change some paragraph formatting options, such as “Space After“, etc. But then this second dialog box contains a “Tabs…” button (bottom-left corner). If you click on that “Tabs…” buttons, Word opens yet another dialog box, the “Tabs” dialog box that lets you add new tab stops or modify existing ones — but at the same time Word also closes the “Paragraph” dialog box! And what do you think happens when you click on the “OK” or “Cancel” button in the “Tabs” dialog box? It returns the user to… the “New Style” dialog box, rather than the “Paragraph” dialog box from where the “Tabs” dialog box was invoked.

This is just plain wrong. There is nothing on the “Tabs…” button in the “Paragraph” dialog box that says that, when you click on that button, you are going to exit the “Paragraph” dialog box with no option to return to it. This is a totally non-standard behaviour. The standard behaviour in a Mac OS X dialog box is that clicking on a button in that dialog box might open another dialog box on top of the current one — but the program should never exit the former dialog box unless instructed by the user to do so. Worse still: Word exits the “Paragraph” dialog box and validates the changes made by the user in that dialog box, thereby denying him the chance to cancel these changes — even though the “Paragraph” dialog box does have a “Cancel” button. It’s wrong, totally wrong.

This problem in Word has been with us for ages. And it’s no different in Word 2004. Either tabs are part of the “Paragraph” dialog box of formatting options, or they are not. But they can’t be both. This kind of thing only leads to confusion in the mind of the user, because he ends up not knowing where he is, which changes have been validated and which have not, etc.

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